As with last week, this week’s principle UK defence developments centred upon events in the Middle East and the Ebola crisis. In the former, it was announced that the RAF will soon begin flying Reaper drones over Syria on surveillance missions, despite an absence of parliamentary approval for the UK to join the operation in the country. The aircraft will reportedly be armed when flying over Syria, so as to allow them to engage targets in Iraq when the mission they are on necessitates flying over both countries. Although it has been said that a second vote in the House of Commons would be required for them to engage targets in Syria, David Cameron has told MPs that he reserved the right to take military action “immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards” if a “critical British national interest” were at stake, or if there was risk of “humanitarian catastrophe”.
With regards to the Ebola crisis, this week saw the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus make a stop at Gibraltar on the way to Sierra Leone, in order to load a shipment of 32 pick-up trucks to be used by international aid agencies in the country. Separately, a further 150 British Army personnel flew into Sierra Leone to provide assistance.
Also this week, it was announced that RAF St Athan is to become a civilian airfield after the RAF vacates it in December. The Royal Navy commissioned its first front line Wildcat helicopter squadron. And Sweden has been searching for a suspected Russian mini-submarine that Swedish intelligence believes may have become stranded in its territorial waters.
MoD makes preparations for sale of Defence Support Group
The Daily Telegraph reports that the MoD is preparing to sell the Defence Support Group (DSG) – the publicly owned organisation that provides maintenance, repair, overhaul, upgrade and procurement support services for defence equipment – to a private sector firm for between £200m and £300m. It is expected that the DSG will be sold next month, possibly to defence giants Babcock, KBR or General Dynamics, as part of plans to transfer billions of pounds of work to the private sector at a time when the MoD is facing heavy budget cuts. Privatisation of the unit was first proposed in 2010, when the government announced its intention to sell the DSG within the period of the current Spending Review, 2014/15. As reported in last week’s monitoring, members of staff belonging to the union Unite recently went on strike in protest at a proposed one per cent pay offer.
Plans to implement private sector practices in Defence Equipment & Support criticised
The Independent reports that the MoD has come under criticism for plans to introduce private sector practices into the operation of the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) group. The MoD tried to semi-privatise the Bristol-based organisation last year. However, a lack of interest from the private sector has failed to dissuade politicians – notably former Defence Secretary Philip Hammond – of the idea that DS&S would benefit from being run by managers who had greater commercial experience than career civil servants. To this end, the MoD then decided on a lighter set of reforms in which two “managed service providers”, Bechtel and US rival CH2M Hill, will help with some major acquisition programmes. However, with procurement expenditure falling as a result of defence cuts and the winding down of the Afghan campaign, questions have emerged over whether the planned changes will represent value for money. In particular, the news that either the current chief executive of the DE&S Bernard Grey or his replacement could – in order to bring their salary up to private sector levels – end up being Britain’s best-paid civil servant, on a £250,000 salary plus up to £250,000 in bonuses, has caused derision to emerge from many quarters.
Defence questions in the House of Commons
This week saw an oral question and answer session in the House of Commons. No issues of direct relevance the DPF were raised. However, one telling answer did emerge from the Defence Minister Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con) when he was asked by Sir Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con) if at least thirteen Type 26 frigates (the number required to replace the existing thirteen Type 23 frigates) would definitely be procured. Mr Dunne replied that the 2015 SDSR would be looking at the number of ships for the Royal Navy, which would include “up to” nineteen destroyers and frigates. Effectively, this means that the government is not wedded to the number of escorts proscribed for Future Force 2020 in the 2010 SDSR (six destroyers and thirteen frigates). As a result, it is clear that the way is being left open for significant new cuts to core equipment.
The Federation is alert to the potential for further cuts as part of next year’s SDSR that could affect the MDP. We are accordingly pursuing meetings with key parliamentarians and are also in the process of meeting with a number of leading defence correspondents from national newspapers.
Killer of two police officers to be released after 48 years in prison
Harry Roberts, who was convicted of murdering two unarmed plain-clothed policemen in Braybrook Street, Shepherd’s Bush, in August 1966, is to be released at the age of 78. Roberts reportedly showed no remorse and was jailed for life with a minimum of 30 years but has spent 18 years more than that. His imminent release has caused anger among the policing community. Eamon Keating, National Chairman of the Defence Police Federation, which represents the Ministry of Defence Police, tweeted: “Release of Harry Roberts, who murdered unarmed police officers, is a disgrace for justice and the families of the officers.” Eamon’s comments were reported on the Get West London website.
Police now using unpaid volunteers in key roles
The Guardian reports that police forces across England and Wales are increasingly turning to unpaid volunteers to fill key positions such as scene of crime investigators, forensic experts and emergency planning officers. There are now 9,000 police support volunteers who have ‘replaced’ 15,000 staff jobs lost since 2010. Some forces report plans to double or triple their voluntary staff in the next year. The rebalancing comes in the wake of 20 per cent cut in central government funding. A report by the union Unison has claimed that the trend towards replacing paid staff with volunteers violates Home Office guidelines. The report also reveals that there have been moves by some within the College of Policing to introduce unpaid police community support officers (PCSOs).
US intelligence chairman calls for arming of British police
The Daily Telegraph reports that one of the United States' most senior intelligence figures has said that British police officers should be routinely armed as a result of concerns that they will be targeted by extremists. Mike Rogers, a Republican congressman who heads a committee which oversees sixteen US intelligence agencies, said it was “concerning” that officers in this country would be unable to defend themselves from armed attackers. Police across the UK have been put on an alert amid fears Islamist terrorists may be planning to kill an officer on the street, with officers and civilian staff told to remain extra vigilant. Mr Rogers expressed disappointment that the House of Commons had explicitly ruled out air strikes on Syria when MPs were recalled for a six-hour emergency debate on September 26.
Foreign Secretary confirms warrantless surveillance of foreign emails
The Financial Times reports that the Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond has confirmed that UK spy agencies collect international private social media messages and emails without ministerial sign-off. Speaking to parliament’s intelligence and security committee in public for the first time, Philip Hammond detailed the scope of the data routinely collected by national intelligence agencies. He said information going to, or from, servers outside the UK would not have the same protection as data sent within the country, leaving private Facebook posts, Twitter messages and emails all open for collection. However, Mr Hammond added that none of these messages would be individually examined, unless he signed a warrant granting permission.
New police firing range opens near Dounreay
The Press and Journal reports that a new firing range for Civil Nuclear Constabulary officers has opened near the Dounreay nuclear site in Caithness. The £2.5m facility is expected to have a 10-year lifespan, by which time it is estimated that the adjacent nuclear facility – home to a number of disused reactors – will have been fully decommissioned.
RAF takes delivery of upgraded Typhoon aircraft
The Daily Telegraph reports that the RAF has taken delivery of the first batch of Typhoon fighter aircraft capable of carrying the Paveway IV precision-guided bombs – a weapon that is currently being used by RAF Tornados against ISIS targets in Iraq. BAE Systems is upgrading 35 of the RAF jets.